Imagine a mother of 12 children who feels agitated at the very sight of paper and a book. Someone who aspires to be literate in order to read religious books and recite hymns. In her autobiography, Rassundari Devi (1810-?) writes that she used to curse herself for having such evil desires since women from ‘cultured’ households did not learn to read. Literate women were considered bad in the society. Old traditional women would make it into an issue if they spotted a piece of paper in the hands of a young girl. Yet, her desire outweighed her societal fear. Rassundari Devi took out a page from a religious book of her husband and stole one of the leaves on which her son used to practise writing. She hid these two items in her kitchen. She tried to match the words on the leaf with those on the page whenever she was free from household chores. If she heard any footsteps while she was learning to read, she would hide the page and the leaf under some utensil or stove.
The manner in which this woman learnt the art of reading and writing would seem like an alien thing in the present world. Later on, Rassundari Devi recorded her struggle in an autobiography “Amar Jiban” (My Life). She writes in her autobiography, recalling the times when she had learnt reading and writing;
“I used to be impatient to listen to the Ramayana recitation, but those were different times. Women had no freedom. They could not take any decision on their own. Just like any caged bird, women were imprisoned too.
I could read (religious books) a little bit. But I did not have free time and more importantly the fear of getting caught and punished was always looming over me. Later on, I decided that I would read “Chetna Bhagat” (a religious book) in the morning when all three of my sister-in-laws were busy in religious rituals. Still, I had to read while I hid in some nook and corner of the house as one of my maidservants kept the vigil.”
The first part of “Amar Jiban” was published in 1876. It was a historic event that a woman’s autobiography was published in Bengali. Tarabai Shinde’s “Stri Purush Talana” (1882) in which men and women were compared and it caused ripples in the society of those times, Pandita Ramabai Saraswati’s “The High-Caste Hindu Woman” (1887), were published much later than Rassundari Devi’s Bengali autobiography. Swarnakumari Devi of the Tagore family also got involved with Bengali literature much later when she started editing a Bengali literary magazine in 1884.
Jyotirindranath Tagore wrote the foreword to the second edition of “Amar Jiban”. He was a famous author himself and elder brother of Rabindranath Tagore. In the foreword he writes;
“I started reading “Amar Jiban” with an excitement. I had decided that I would mark important and interesting sentences with a pencil. While reading, I realised that the whole book had been marked with a pencil. Her life story startles us. Her writings are so simple, honest and powerful that it is impossible to put down the book without completing it.”
During the 19th and early 20th century, upper caste Hindu as well as Muslim women were living a life similar to that of prisoners, while living under the veil (purdah). We find the description of the pathetic situation of women in the novels of Rabindranath Tagore and Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. But the description is even more powerful in “Amar Jiban”. She had to work with her ghoonghat (veil) even in her kitchen. Her voice had to be lowered while talking to maidservants so that no male servant or family member could hear her voice. Even the voice of a woman was imprisoned in the cage of the veil.
“Amar Jiban” is a document that tells us how purdah (veil) was a part of the culture of Bengal. Centuries of patriarchal domination had normalised women into living under such practices and they considered it their rightful duty to remain in this jail. She writes about an incident when she was 25 and her son was learning horse riding;
“There was a horse Jay Hari in our house. One day it was brought in front of the woman’s courtyard so that I could watch my son ride. I heard someone saying that it was the horse of my husband. It struck me suddenly that I couldn’t go in front of this horse. It would have been shameful if my husband’s horse saw me, so I hid inside the house.”
Women, in those times, considered it their duty to hide even from a horse belonging to their husbands. We can just imagine how they would have behaved in front of a man. Purdah (veil) was rooted in the psychology of Bengali women. They could not imagine a world without it. “Amar Jiban” also helps us understand how normalisation of purdah (veil) kept women away from education. It was a tool to exclude them from society.
Rassundari Devi’s story is around one and a half century old. Circumstances have changed and women can now come out and pursue education. But we should not forget that it was the sacrifices and actions of such strong women that paved the way for later generations of women. Such inspirational figures are the strength behind the present feminist and women’s rights movements.
(Author is a well known Historian)